Nearly nine years into the Afghan war, many small valleys in mountainous eastern Afghanistan remain mostly off limits to NATO and Afghan troops. In their absence, smugglers, isolationists and religious extremists dominate. The U.S. Army recently launched a mission to re-establish a presence in one dangerous valley.
These soldiers with the 503rd Infantry Regiment face a risky mission. They intend to drive deep into the Chowkay Valley in eastern Kunar province, along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. NATO and Afghan government forces have avoided the region for years.
The Chowkay lies beyond the so-called "red line," that marks the allies' area of control. Here, the Taliban and other armed groups are the real powers. Farmers grow poppies, for the heroin that funds the Taliban insurgency.
When NATO troops cross the red line, the fighting is often fierce.
Captain Joe Snowden leads today's patrol. While his soldiers focus on defending against attack, he channels his energies towards a more complex challenge: bridging the cultural gap between NATO and the valley's Pashtun residents. "One of the biggest challenges we have has to do with the cultural differences. The Pashtun population is challenging by nature in the way they look at life. Corruption is a daily affair, one of the things that doesn't strike them as odd," he said.
The soldiers infiltrate the valley under the cover of gunship helicopters.
They keep watch while Snowden's team of agricultural experts meets with village elders, trying to convince them to stop growing poppies.
Enemy fighters soon surround the Americans, forcing them to withdraw. The helicopters fire white-phosphorous rockets as the soldiers retreat.
At a second meeting in a safer part of the valley, Snowden repeats his message. "We know for a fact those poppies, and where those poppies go when they leave this valley, gets a lot of money for foreign fighters and it funds their bullets, funds their guns. ... If an alternative to poppies were available, would you be interested in growing it?"
The elders only laugh. The soldiers leave without making any clear progress.
In the absence of a larger NATO or Afghan government presence, Snowden says the only option is to keep trying to work through the elders. "These folks are still in a tribal system. We have to work with that system. ... If I lose the tribes, I lose that as base of power," he said.